In Restless Human Hearts (1875), after their trial marriage and disappointing continental trip, Neville and Georgiana are reflecting separately on the concern they feel about their future: Georgie wants the ‘transports of love’ she and Neville had at the beginning of their relationship, while Neville requires something else.
“I think,” said Neville, speaking in a dreamy, far-off manner, “the very best thing for us all would be the discovery of a new continent; not one like America, where one can get across it and find the sea the other side, but an illimitable continent – a forest, a plain, mountains, rivers, lakes without end – stretching away for ever; a continent into which men might wander day by day for ever and for ever, beginning in youth and going on till death came, straight away as the crow flies, and never reach the other side; a continent which hundreds of generations of men might take up each other’s tracks – as the one dropped the other taking up the journey – and yet never arrive, but be always travelling onwards, onwards, onwards. Then we should have a resource – somewhere to hide ourselves now the world is so small…”
Likewise, at the end of the book, Heloise recognises that her Noel is a card-carrying Ulysses and cannot rest from travel.
Both Neville and Noel remind me of the great traveller Bevis tells the history of in The Story of a Boy (1882).
Here is The Story of the Other Side – in the form as Bevis might have heard it, uninterrupted, from his grandfather…
Once upon a time there was a great traveller who went sailing all round every sea. He went on till he said it was all no good, because if you went into the biggest forest that ever was you walked through it in about three years… and if you climbed up a mountain, after a day or two you got to the top; and if you sailed across the sea, if it was the greatest sea there ever was, you came to the other side in six months or so; so that it did not matter what you did, there was always an end to it.
He got tired of it always coming to the other side. He did so hate the other side, and he used to dawdle through the forests and lose his way, and he used to pull down the sails and let the ship go anyhow, and never touch the helm. But it was no use he always dawdled through the forest after awhile, and he got so miserable and what to do he did not know, and he could not stop still very well – nobody can stop still – and that’s why people have got a way of spinning on their heels in some countries – he became a Dervish, and used to spin round and round furiously, but you know a top always runs down, and so he got to the other side again.
Always the other side… and so he said that this was such a little world he hated it, you could go all round the earth and come back to yourself and meet yourself in your own house at home in no time.
The quicker you get round the smaller it is, though it’s thousands and thousands of miles, so he said; he set out again to find a place where he could wander and never get to the other side, and after he had walked across Persia and Khorasan and Beloochistan, and crossed the Indus and Ganges, and been over the Himalayas, and inquired at every temple and of all the wise men who live in caves and hang themselves up with hooks stuck through their backs… At last a very old man took pity on him, seeing how miserable he was, and whispered to him where to go, and so he went on to Thibet.
He had the password, which the aged man whispered to him, and so they let him come in, and then he wandered about again for a long while, and by this time he was getting very old himself and could not walk so fast, so that it took longer and longer to get to the other side each time. Till at last, inquiring at all the temples as he went, they promised to show him a forest to which there was no other side. But he had to bathe and be purified first, and they burned incense and did a lot of magical things. And then one night in the darkness, so that he should not see which way they went, they led him along, and in the morning he was in a very narrow valley with a wall across so that you could not go any farther down the valley, nor could you climb up, because the rocks were so steep. Now, when they came to the wall he saw a little narrow bronze door in it – very low and very narrow – and the door was all covered with carvings and curious magic inscriptions.
The man who showed it to him, and who wore a crimson robe, over which his white beard flowed nearly down to the ground went to the door and spoke to it in some language he did not understand and a voice answered, and then he saw the door open a little way, just a chink. Then he had to go on his hands and knees, and press his head and neck through the chink between the bronze door and the wall, and he could see over the country which has no other side to it. Though you may wander straight on for a thousand years, or ten thousand years, you can never get to the other side, but you always go on, and go on, and go on.
The air was so clear that he was certain he could see over at least a hundred miles of the plain, just as you can see over twenty miles of sea from the top of a cliff. But this was not a cliff, it was a level plain, and he could see at least a hundred miles. Now, behind him he had left the sun shining brightly, and he could feel the hot sunshine on his back. But inside the wall there was no sun. Ever so far away, hung up as our sun looks hung up like a lamp – ever so far away and not so very high up, there was an opal star. It was a very large star and so bright that you could see the beams of light shooting out from it, but so soft and gentle and pleasant that you could look straight at it without hurting your eyes, and see the flashes change exactly like an opal – a beautiful great opal star. All the air seemed full of the soft light from the star, so that the trees and plants and the ground even seemed to float in it, just like an island seems to float in the water when it is very still, and there was no shadow. Nothing cast any shadow, because the light came all round everything, and he put his hand out into it and it did not cast any shadow, but instead his hand looked transparent, and as if there was a light underneath it.
And among the trees… the blue sky came down and they stood in it, just close by you could not see it, but farther off it was blue like a mist in the forest, only you could see through it and it shimmered blue like the blue-bells in the copse.
He could see thousands of flowers, but he forgot what they were like except one which was like a dome of gold and larger than any temple he had ever seen. The grass grew up round it so tall he could not see the stalk, so that it looked as if it hung from the sky, and though it was gold he could see through it and see the blue the other side which looked purple through the gold, and the opal star was reflected on the dome. Nor could he remember all about the trees, having so much to look at, except one with a jointed stem like a bamboo which grew not far from the bronze door. This one rose up, up, till he could not strain his neck back to see to the top, and it was as large round as our round summer-house at home, but transparent, so that you could see the sap bubbling and rushing up inside in a running stream, and a sweet odour came down like rain from the boughs above.
Now, while he was straining his neck to try and see the top of this tree, as his eyes were turned away from the opal sun, he could see the stars of heaven, and immediately heard the flute of an organ. For these stars – which were like our stars – were not scattered about, but built up in golden pipes or tubes; there were twelve tubes, all of stars, one larger than the other, and behind these other pipes, and behind these others tier on tier. Only there were twelve in front, the rest he could not count, and it was from these that the flute sound came and filled him with such transport that he quite forgot himself, and only lived in the music. At last his neck wearied of looking up, and he looked down again, and instantly he did not hear the starry organ, but saw instead the opal sun, and the shimmering sky among the trees.
From the bronze door there was a footpath leading out, out, winding a little, but always out and out, and so clear was the air, that though it was only a footpath, he could trace it for nearly half the hundred miles he could see. The footpath was strewn with leaves fallen from the trees, oval-pointed leaves, some were crimson, and some were gold, and some were black, and all had marks on them.
One of these was lying close to the bronze door, and as he had put his hand through he stretched himself and reached it, and when he held it up the light of the opal sun came through it – it was transparent – and he could see words written on it which he read, and they told him the secret of the tree from which it had fallen.
Now, all these leaves that were strewn on the footpath each of them had a secret written on it – a magic secret about the trees, and the plants, and the birds, and the stars, and the opal sun – every one had a magic secret on it, and you might go on first picking up one and then another, till you had travelled a hundred miles, and then another hundred miles, a thousand years, or ten thousand years, and there was always a fresh secret and a fresh leaf.
Or you might sit down under one of the trees whose branches came to the ground like the weeping ash at home, or you might climb up into another – but no matter how, if you took hold of the leaves and turned them aside, so that the light of the opal sun came through, you could read a magic secret on every one, and it would take you fifty years to read one tree. Some of the leaves strewed the footpath, and some lay on the grass, and some floated on the water, but they did not decay, and the one he held in his hand went throb, throb, like the pulse in your wrist.
From secret to secret you might wander, always a new secret, till you went beyond the horizon, and then there was another horizon, and after that another, and you could go on and on, and on, and though you could walk for ever without weariness, because the air was so pure and delicious, still you could never, never, never get to the other side.
Some have been walking there these millions of years, and some have been sitting up in the trees, and some have been lying under the golden dome flowers all that time, and never found and never will find the other side, which is why they are so happy. They do not sleep, because they never feel sleepy; they just turn over from the opal sun and look up at the stars and then the music begins, and as it plays they become strong, and then they go on again gathering more of the leaves, and travelling towards the opal sun, and the nearer they get the happier they are, and yet they can never get to it.
While he looked he felt as if he must get through and go on too, and he struggled and struggled, but the bronze door was hard and the wall hard, so that it was no use. His mind though and soul had gone through; and he saw a white shoulder, like alabaster, pure, white, and transparent among the grass by the golden dome flower, and a white arm stretched out towards him, so white it gleamed polished, and a white hand, soft, warm-looking, delicious, transparent white, beckoning to him. So he struggled and struggled till it seemed as if he would get through to his soul, which had gone on down the footpath, when the aged man behind dragged him back, and the bronze door shut with an awful resonance.
When he was pulled back it was night on that side of the wall, and the sudden change made him so bewildered that they led him away as if he was walking in his sleep down to the temple.
The wind of the bronze door as it slammed up blew the magic leaf out of his hand. But when he came to himself and began to reproach them for pulling him away before he had had time even to look, they told him he had been looking three days and that it was the third night when the door was shut.
When he came to himself he found that his right hand which he had put through and which had cast no shadow was changed, it was white and smooth and soft, while the other hand and his face (as he was so old) was wrinkled and hard, so he was quite sure that what he had seen was real and true.
He went back to find the door. But there was nothing but jungle, and he could not find the narrow valley; nor would they show him the way there again. They told him that only one person was let through about every thousand years, and the reason they are so careful people shall not enter Thibet is that they may not stumble on the bronze door.
If it was open and people could find it, they would all run there and squeeze through, one after the other, like sheep through a gap, till the world was left empty without anybody in it, and they told him that was the reason.
He lived to be the oldest man there ever was, which was because he had breathed the delicious air, and his hand was always white and soft. Every night when he went to sleep, he could hear some of the star flute music of the organ, and dreamed he could see it; but he could hear it plainly. At last he died and went to join his soul, which had travelled on down the footpath towards the opal sun.
After feeling the story on my pulse for the umpteenth time, I am again left with a transported sense of awe, feeling that in order to experience life to the full one has simply to keep going onwards. ‘On to the next thing…’ as my late dear friend Mick Miller used to say. Without totally realising it till now articulating the idea, I’ve had this at the back of my mind since 1951 when I first read Bevis.
At the end of Restless Human Hearts Jefferies asks the question – ‘what shall we do with ourselves… [since] we are all tired of our lives [having] done everything, felt everything, tried everything…? This is a question later taken up and splendidly given the works by HGWells and modified into a more provocative form by PDOuspensky – ‘there must be something more to life than this…’ People run around like ants whose march Jefferies asks us to observe on a garden path.
Our cities and our castles, our canals, our roads, our piers into the sea… what are all these compared with the vastness of the world, still more with the vastness of the universe, but mere scratches on the surface, as little, as despicable as this track of the ants across the garden-path? If only, you see – if only we could be like the ants, who see no farther – who look not beyond their track – whose minds from birth to death never conceive a thought beyond their work – who never imagine the vastness around them – then we too might say, “See what great things we have done!” But we have souls; and the soul cannot be satisfied with the city, that is but a grain of sand upon the desert; the pier, that is but a grain of sand upon the shore. The soul sees the littleness of it all. Our minds look into our souls as upon the surface of some divine mirror, and there see reflected the despicable littleness of it all. Even this littleness lasts but for a little time.